Two approaches to church styles

Identity crisis is no stranger to the church. Across the centuries of church history, God’s people have faced quandaries, crossroads, schisms, and even reformations in the pursuit of a biblical model of “doing church.” God is not the one with the identity crisis, and the church’s purpose has remained unchanged; however, the way people have approached the issue has been one of controversy. Despite all the deliberation, there has been no consensus on one right way. The endless smorgasbord of denominations,varieties, subgroups, methods, and styles of church are a testament to this fact. Today, there is a bit of disagreement that has to do with the purpose of church services. A church’s solution to this question can affect their whole program, budget, location, attendance, music style, and just about everything else.


The Question:  What is the purpose of a church service?

The question is a simple one, but it defies a simple answer. It’s one of those back-to-the-basics philosophical questions, the kind that we just sort of avoid thinking about, because it’s either too difficult or boat-rocking to answer. The question drives at one of the core activities of the church—the church services. What is the purpose of a church service? Put another way, the question is “who are we trying to reach in a church service?” Or, “Why are we having a church service?” “What purpose are we trying to fulfill in holding a church service?”

Answering this question is going to drastically affect what you do at 11am on Sunday morning.

The Answers

For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to look at two basic answers to the question. And, yes, this article is open to the accusations of broad brushstrokes, so feel free to vilify the author in the comments section below.

Answer #1:  A place where unbelievers can hear about a relationship with Jesus.

According to this school of thought, the church is primarily an evangelistic center. This style of church has morphed only slightly  from the generation-old seeker-sensitive churches. “Seeker churches” were nonbeliever friendly. In other words, a nonbeliever could feel very comfortable going to a church like this. He could drive up to a steel-and-glass building (with no crosses or steeples), walk into a mall-like lobby, snatch a cappucino at the coffee bar, slide into a theater-style seat, sit back and enjoy the same style of music that he likes to listen to on his radio. All the while, he’s actually in a church, getting a bit of Jesus message every now and then through the music or possibly even through a little drama or speech in the church service.

Obviously, that style of church became really popular. Seeker-sensitive churches were more welcoming to people who would otherwise never set foot in a stained glass-decorated, steeple-bedecked building, full of people seated in pews, wearing suit-and-tie getups.

That style of church isn’t dead…at all. Today, this style of church, commonly referred to as “contemporary” is the 2011 iteration of seeker-sensitive churches. These are the types of churches that top the megachurch lists. These are the churches that host the Christian music artists when they come to town. These are the churches whose pastors are invited to speak at the Catalyst Conference, or whose attendees can choose from seven styles of latte when they come to church on Sunday morning. If fog machines during the worship make it seem more like a rock concert—you know, to help the nonbeliever feel a bit more comfortable—that’s the approach they’ll take.

Contrary to the excoriations of their more conservative brethren, contemporary churches aren’t just craving acceptance or cool status. Although there may be a bit of those fleshly desires mixed in, the goal of these churches is to reach lost people with the gospel. As the logic goes, if we can create an atmosphere where nonbelievers are comfortable, they will be more likely to come and hear the gospel and have a relationship with Jesus. Matthew 28:18-20 makes the mission of the church very clear. This understanding of the purpose of a church service upholds the Great Commission as a driving force behind the style of worship service chosen. The motive is sterling—reach people for Jesus. Armed with a clear sense of mission and purpose, the church sets its budget, crafts its style, builds the building, buys the electric guitars, and finds the finest Java for their coffee shop.

Here’s a video with a humorous approach to this style of church:

Answer #2: A place where believers can gather to worship.

Opponents to this style of church will be found in a different-looking setting. Pews and hymnals are more commonplace. Attire is usually a bit more dressy, and the pastor is usually wearing a tie—if not a bona fide black robe.

For this group of people, church looks different because, after all, church is not for nonbelievers. It’s for Christians! Why did the church get started, anyway? Was it so nonbelievers could come in, sit down, and watch a show that might make them want to become Christians or rearrange their lifestyle to look Christianesque or a bit more moral? Absolutely not. Church is a place where believers gather, worship, fellowship, and observe the ordinances instituted by our Lord.

If nonbelievers feel a bit uncomfortable in such a church setting, the staff isn’t wringing their hands thinking, “Oh, no, no! What should we do or not do to make them feel more comfortable?” Why are they unconcerned? Because the gospel is going to be offensive, ridiculed, and scorned by nonbelievers  (1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:23-25; Matthew 5:11).

This group of Christians are trying to protect the purpose of the church, as they believe it to be. Worship is crucial. Careful Bible teaching is central. In fact, preaching (not the worship music) is the highlight of the church’s service. This approach to church does not necessarily neglect the mission of the church. The support missionaries, witness to their neighbors, and may hold “revival” meetings. They simply see the Sunday-morning service to be primarily for the benefit of believers.

Many people may be more comfortable in a church setting where the music is jacked up, where jeans are the sanctioned dress code, and where no one is called upon to kneel, to read a Scripture passage, or to pray aloud. Others are far more comfortable in a building with a sanctimonious hush, holding a hard-backed hymnal, and hearing the sonorous strains of a pipe organ.

Some Hybrids, More Questions, and…Any Solutions?

As you think about your church, raise objections, and consider exceptions, please understand this: no church fits neatly into just one of the categories above. In fact, many churches are trying to bridge the purpose-of-service chasm by holding several different styles of service–a “contemporary” and a “traditional.” But here’s where we need to insert an important lesson. The real issue is not one of style. It’s an issue of emphasis, mission, purpose, philosophy, and biblical understanding.

At the beginning of this article I wrote, “Answering this question is going to drastically affect what you do at 11am on Sunday morning.” Now you probably see why. If you consider church as a place where believers gather for corporate worship, then the presence of pews isn’t going to bother you. If, on the other hand, you’re wanting unbelievers to stream through the church doors, then you’re probably more interested in allocating funds to a bigger trap set. The approach you take will affect the choices you make.

Each approach has its dangers; each has its advantages. But is their a way to reconcile the two into one happy medium? Or perhaps, is there clear biblical directive to choose one way above another way?

7 Responses

  1. gratitude

    Your last question is extremely valid: “Is there clear biblical directive to choose one way above another way?”

    Clear Bible teaching of the gospel and repentance is essential. Difficult to find in churches today, but essential.

    We have attended traditional Lutheran, contemporary Lutheran, & currently a contemporary church of a larger size.

    The problem with the first was a watering down of the gospel. The communion was fabulous and humbling. The problem of the second was an emphasis on money that was very subtle. The problem of the third is a loss of fellowship with believers.

    Another church isn’t the answer. True believers, who know the Lord Jesus, coming together in fellowship for worship, communion, and giving to one another is the true answer. From this place of strength we are to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Is this even possible to find in a current church in America?

  2. Alan Mitchell

    Kierkegaard gave us his definition of the “drama” of worship. He rejected the idea that the drama of worship was the congregation as the audience, the ministers and musicians performing “on stage,” and God somewhere in the wings. His drama of worship had the congregation on stage, the ministers and musicians in the wings prompting us to worship God who was our only audience. I think Kierkegaard’s definition is still valid today. Whether the worship style is liturgical, traditional, or contemporary, the thing to avoid is crossing that line between “true worship” (Kierkegaard’s definition) AND “performing for” and/or “entertaining,” the congregation. Matthew 28:18-20 is primarily what we do BETWEEN worship services, “as we go.” We gather to worship; we depart to serve. Part of that service is making disciples – leading them to faith in Christ, and also inviting them to worship where a part of that “drama” is openly professing their faith.

  3. Andrew Warde

    Well written article and as always, interesting to read. Two comments though:

    1. In your article, you mentioned “church” as a location a few times. While this is definitely common usage, I think it may confuse the issue theologically and thus make it harder to come to precise observations and conclusions on the issue. As far as I know in the NT, “church” never refers to a location of meeting or a time of meeting. Not trying to nitpick here, but I think it has big import on this discussion. If church isn’t where you meet or when you meet but is rather who is meeting, I think it really alters how we view things. We would cease to go to church (a phrase I still catch myself saying) and simply be the church, whether together or apart (the secular view of “going to church” could be really helpful in bringing people to Christ though). Interesting in 1 Cor 14:23-25 (I think) that Paul made church gathering decisions based on how it would appear to the unsaved meeting with them.

    2. Do you have any idea where the phrase “church service” or just “service” originated? I’ve done a little bit of looking but can’t find anything conclusive that makes total sense. Are we serving God, each other? is God serving us? Are the elements of the Lord’s supper being served? Is it catholic in origin, thus needing no actual theological basis? 🙂

    Let me know what you think. These are issues I’m trying to work through and I’d really appreciate your insights.

  4. Paul Smith

    I wonder if either of your ‘answers’ are right. In the NT, the ‘church’ just seemed to be a group of people who met together to ‘talk Jesus/God’, to pray, break bread together & spend time together. I can’t remember anywhere in the NT where we have believers regularly sitting around singing songs while someone preaches at them. The NT church was DEFINITELY just for believers or those seriously interested, not just for someone who wanted to pop in for a cup of tea.

    When I read accounts of the early church, I imagine a group of believers getting together for mutual encouragement and discussion. Probably more like a ‘house group’ or ‘small group’ than what we call ‘church’ nowadays.

    Evangelism then was done in the places where people met – the synagogue, the market place, not in a special building. Singing songs probably just happened ad hoc, and I suspect there was no “preacher” at all (unless someone like Paul was in town)…

    What we have now is a ‘Sunday Church’, and I think it’s missing the point. The church should be believers spending time with each other – a sort of extended family. That’s all the time, not just on Sundays, and doing everything, not just singing songs.

    The weekly meetings are not there to ‘worship God’ – we should be worshipping God every day, all day. (If you have to be at church to worship God, then I think there’s something wrong.) So, since we’re worshipping all the time, we will worship at church, but that isn’t the point of church at all.

    Are we treating the church building like a Temple? So, that’s ‘where God is’ (some words used for churches suggest that’s what we think, deep down – ‘God’s house’, ‘sanctuary’ etc.) God isn’t especially in a church building or church gathering. If we go to church to ‘meet with God’, then we’re tying to imprison God.

    Thus the point of ‘church’ isn’t ‘God’, it’s ‘believers’. If you look at the early church, I think that’s what you see. The church is a place for believers to encourage and be encouraged, for fellowship, and to discuss the Good News. God is everywhere, He doesn’t need church, but He knows we need it.

  5. Kraig Wall

    I know the topic is really which kind of church do we need to be, friendly to the unchurched or appealing more to the believer. However, this was a great post, particularly on worship. It’s a quick observation that in many church settings in America today the most popular place to be is in the “audience” as an observer rather than an active participant. The TV generation has become good at living in someone else’s reality and living vicariously through them as they watch. It seems easy to forget that each one of us will stand before the Lord to give an account of our deeds. If we believe God is all powerful, loving and worthy of worship, then we cannot hold that back from him. What would I do when I see Him face to face? I think I know.

    As for which church should we be, the answer is pretty clear. We must be a church that leads people to Christ and disciples them. Whatever that looks like in our own communities, we must find that sweet spot. Paul said he became all things to all people in order that he might lead some to Christ. We appluad that statement from him, but when it gets applied today, it often brings criticism.

    Watering down the message never works, but making a solid truth relevant always does. Remaining antiquated or irrelevant is not the answer. And why must we equate being relevant to watering down? We’re certainly wise enough, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to take Jesus example and tell a good parable and then explain the truth of it’s meaning? We are certainly astute enough to know that old methods must change through time. We live it every day in our own lives. Why do we resist it in the church setting? Which one of us would speak a foreign language to someone who could not understand? Not one of us. Let’s be creatively challenged to reach a dying world with the truth of the gospel in a way that cuts through the baggage of needing “cultural interpreter”. We can do that.

    Whatever kind of “church” we find ourselves part of, if we are not producing fruit leading others to Christ, we must look at trimming the branches of the tree. Let’s take Paul’s example to heart. And whatever you do, keep serving Jesus!

  6. Becky Nicol

    The reason we worship is to praise, thank, glorify and pray to God. It is not about the space so much, or even the style of worship. Unfortunately, our American consumer culture has led too many to view choosing a church as “church shopping” instead of searching for a local church community where one can contribute his or her gifts. Part of being a disciple is learning discipline in many areas of our lives, including worship. This message has been subsumed by our culture. Contemporary, traditional, and emerging/alternative worship can all be faithful, scriptural, holy worship that nurtures believers and reaches out into the community and the world with the gospel in action. See “How Shall we Worship” by Marva Dawn for biblical insights and a theological understanding of worship.

  7. Jonathan Threlfall

    Thanks for the article. I’ve seen another category of church service possibly becoming more popular called the “classic” service. A church here in Matthew had posted the time for its “contemporary” service and its “classic” service. I would say that “classic” sounds better than “traditional,” but was unclear whether it reflected an actual shift in worship style or simply terminology.

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